“Citizen Tom Paine” by Howard Fast, 1943
This book stands out for a number of reasons. One is that hardly anyone knows the full history of Tom Paine, a proletarian from England who wrote some of the seminal agitational works of the American revolution. Two is that this book reflects the life of a professional revolutionary – a new human species. Revolution was the only skill he had. Three is that it illustrates the huge class divide that existed in the U.S. during the war for independence against Britain.
|The Professional Revolutionary|
Fast is a left-wing historical novelist whose specialty is bringing emancipatory characters and periods to life again. Paine was a short, broad-shouldered itinerant worker with large hands who gradually realized he wanted to make it his life’s work to encourage revolution. He was a drinker and not afraid to speak the truth to whatever laced gentleman insulted him. Paine served not just in the U.S. as George Washington’s chief propagandist, but in Britain, where he had to flee, and in France during the French Revolution.
His famous writings – “Common Sense,” various versions of “The Crisis,” “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason” were all written while involved in revolutionary activity in those countries – the first two in the U.S., the third in England and the fourth in France. When he finally returned to the U.S. he was ostracized for being a dreaded atheist, even though he was actually a theist. His old friends dropped away, including Washington. He died penniless and alone. Hardly anyone came to his funeral in the Tory-loving area of New Rochelle in Westchester County, New York. His grave was later dug up, his bones stolen and sold or lost somewhere in Europe. That was how the U.S. finally treated the author of “Common Sense.”
Paine’s main skill before taking up writing was as a ‘stay-maker’ in clothing. He left the poverty-stricken gin mills of England and sailed to America, with help from Ben Franklin. He arrived in Philadelphia just as the agitation over independence was gathering steam. After the battles at Lexington, Concord and later, Breed’s Hill, Paine supported independence. He began writing “Common Sense” which electrified the whole nascent country. He signed up for the local Philadelphia militia, which marched to New Jersey to join Washington in New York. After hearing of the losing battles in Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan, the ignorant and lazy businessman who had been appointed their military leader turned tail with the rest of the recruits. Only Paine and one back-woodsman remained, and they went forward to join Washington’s army in retreat.
Paine got to know the winter soldiers, stayed in the winter encampments including Valley Forge. His book “Common Sense” gave them a reason to fight in these dark days. As loss after loss accumulated, he wrote a series called “The Crisis” dealing with salient issues of the revolution, which were sold or distributed to soldiers and civilians alike. These actually ‘were the times that tried men’s souls.’ From this he made a scanty living.
Some of his struggle was against the bourgeois elements that controlled the Continental Congress - plantation owners, mercantilists, businessmen. They ignored the starving and unpaid soldiers who were Paine’s friends. Soldier’s clothing or armament needs were abstract to these bewigged politicians - instead they squabbled about who would get what spoils after the war. It was clear that it was mechanics, tailors and shopkeepers from the cities and farmers and back-woodsmen from the countryside that did the fighting, while the plantation owners and big businessmen back home haggled over who would control land, money, goods and produce when it was all over.
At one point when Paine returned to Philadelphia he formed a proletarian Commission of Inquiry that discovered the hoarding of boots, attempts to corner the wheat market and other financial schemes designed to enrich the wealthy war profiteering elements. These were broken up and finally some goods began to be delivered to the beleaguered troops. In the process, they also started the Bank of Pennsylvania, which finally was able to procure funds for the war, including paying the soldiers. He made an enemy during this process, a rich bastard named Gouvenour Morris, who later as U.S. ambassador to France refused to ask for his release from the Parisian gaol in the Luxembourg Palace where he was waiting to be beheaded. Paine knew Washington and Jefferson well, but he opposed slavery. Oddly, this book does not delve into slavery as does Fast's "Freedom Road," 'perfuming' the U.S. Revolution.
After the revolution was successful, Paine went to England and there saw the same signs of class oppression as he did in the U.S. Paine then wrote “The Rights of Man” which angered the English nobility, capitalists and government. Workers from various parts of England came to him for direction, as he was now world famous, on a first name basis with Franklin, Jefferson and Washington. They formed revolutionary cells in various parts of England and gathered weapons, even though they only knew tools. But at some point the cells were discovered and Paine was threatened with execution for being the author of seditious literature. By the narrowest of margins, he escaped across the channel to revolutionary France.
Upon arriving in Calais Paine was made a deputy to the revolutionary Convention by the citizens there. Paine said the whole world was his village, and so he now found himself in the large ‘village’ of Paris, just after the storming of the Bastille. It was a heady time and he defended revolutionary France in his writings. He made friends with the Girondins – middle-class liberals who were one of the largest factions in the Convention – and this was almost his undoing. The other main faction – the Jacobins – were closer to the sans-culotte masses of Paris. Paine had always been inspired by the proletarian and small farmer, while the Girondins were appalled by the rabble, as was typical of the middle-class. He never bridged this contradiction because he did not want to encourage violence.
This is when he wrote “The Age of Reason,” which advocated a belief in God and Jesus, but denounced organized religion of any type – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic. In those days, few could discern the difference. He was attempting to counter the hard atheism of many French radicals, who were attacking God and the collaboration of the Catholic Church with royalty.
The ultimate debate was over the fate of the king and queen. The Jacobins argued for execution, given the royals role as a rallying point for reaction. The Girondins opposed it, along with Paine in his terrible French. The Jacobins won the argument, and soon the Girondins, then Paine, then others were imprisoned in the Luxembourg, with many going to the guillotine. As an older man, Paine stayed for 9 months and was freed when the ‘Bonapartist’ reaction set in, as St. Just, Robespierre and Marat were now dead.
Napoleon came to visit him at his country room to recruit him to the cause of invading England. When Paine said ‘bad idea’ – only attack England's extended empire – Napoleon turned cold. And Paine was free to leave France and return to the ungrateful U.S.
In the process of revolution, Paine had turned down a rural domestic life with a woman who wanted to marry him. His worldly possessions were one suitcase and a fallow farm given to him by the U.S. government. He was ragged, old, tired, many times drunk and had nothing more to write when the end finally came.
One day Tom Paine will be remembered in a much more profound way then he is now – if the proletariat which he championed have their way.
Paine’s collected works are for sale at May Day.
And I got it at the Library!
September 12, 2018